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Researchers advance blood testing for chronic fatigue syndrome

May 16, 2019

Patient sleeping

One of the hardest things about chronic fatigue syndrome is the stigma—the notion that it just might be all in your head. Chronic fatigue syndrome afflicts an estimated 800,000 to 2 million Americans and has no known cure. Symptoms include malaise, sleep problems, pain, dizziness and difficulty concentrating. The diagnosis, when made at all, is typically withheld until other diseases are ruled out.

There’s no established diagnostic test for CFS, which is also known as myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) and, pejoratively, the “yuppie flu.”

It will come as good news, then, that Stanford scientists have developed a pilot blood test that, if proven out, could someday help confirm the presence of the ME/CFS.

The research involves human biospecimens and electricity

According to a Stanford University School of Medicine news release, the test, which is still in a pilot phase, is based on how a person’s immune cells respond to stress. With blood samples from 40 people — 20 with chronic fatigue syndrome and 20 without — the test accurately flagged all chronic fatigue syndrome patients and none of the healthy individuals.

The test used a “nanoelectronic assay.” Researchers stressed the samples from both healthy and ill patients using salt, and then compared how each sample affected the flow of the electrical current. Changes in the current indicate changes in the cell: the bigger the change in current, the bigger the change on a cellular level. A big change is not a good thing; it’s a sign that the cells and plasma are flailing under stress and incapable of processing it properly. All of the blood samples from ME/CFS patients created a clear spike in the test, according to the news release. Those from healthy controls returned data that was on a relatively even keel.

‘Not a fabrication of a patient’s mind’

“We don’t know exactly why the cells and plasma are acting this way, or even what they’re doing,” said Ron Davis, PhD, professor of biochemistry and of genetics. “But there is scientific evidence that this disease is not a fabrication of a patient’s mind. We clearly see a difference in the way healthy and chronic fatigue syndrome immune cells process stress.”

The researchers are now working toward replicating the findings in a larger cohort of participants.

In addition to potentially diagnosing ME/CFS, the nanoelectronic assay could be a platform for testing new drugs with a potential to help these patients. If a drug seemed to mitigate the jump in electrical activity, that would mean it’s helping the immune cells and plasma better process stress.

In time, the stigma around ME/CFS might disappear, supplanted by scientific evidence fueled by quality biospecimens, such as the blood samples used in this study. With a lot of luck, it may also be cured.

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